As Congress joins national discussion about sex abuse, university athletics seem above the law

David Cassilo Contributor
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WASHINGTON — The sexual abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse Universities have caught the attention of Congress, but changing a few reporting laws might not have been enough to alter the alleged crimes of Jerry Sandusky or Bernie Fine.

A Senate committee has already reacted to the events at the two schools and scheduled a hearing to examine if stricter laws are needed to protect children from child abuse and neglect.

“In terms of whistleblowers, you’re up against this vague notion that it’s against the law, but you’re entrapped in this kind of total institution where you get the sense that Joe Paterno or people like him are more powerful than the local district attorney,” said Rick Eckstein, a Villanova University professor who specializes in the sociology of sports.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families will convene a hearing on Dec. 13 to examine whether federal laws adequately protect children from sexual abuse.

“No child should ever be subjected to sexual abuse. And no adult should ever turn a blind eye to such abuse,” said Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, in a press release.

The hearing follows the introduction of child abuse-related bills by members of both the House and Senate. Rep. Karen Bass of California and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, both Democrats, drafted legislation in wake of the Penn State scandal.

Democratic Rep. George Miller of California has also called for a similar hearing in the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Miller sent a letter to Republican chairman Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, but the committee has not yet announced whether it will hold its own hearing.

“We have a responsibility to our children and our communities to maintain vigorous oversight of child safety issues,” Miller wrote in the letter. “Any specific remedies we identify through such collective oversight should be immediately taken up by this House.”

But calling for stricter reporting laws might me more of a public relations move by members of Congress more than anything else. What Sandusky and Fine allegedly did in their coaching roles was already against the law.

As for adults reporting sexual abuse, observers are concerned that both Penn State and Syracuse are environments where the university or an athletic team might weld greater power than police.

Former Penn State president Graham Spanier was an administrator at Stony Brook University (then SUNY-Stony Brook) when Villanova’s Eckstein was there as a graduate student. When Eckstein heard that Spanier stepped down after the Sandusky scandal, he was not surprised.

“He always wanted to be a college president, and he became one,” Eckstein said. “He’s a solid human being, but you get caught up in this culture of entitlement and you make bad decisions.”

Players can get caught up in it, too, but for different reasons. To date, no Penn State or Syracuse player has been accused of failing to report Sandusky’s or Fine’s alleged behavior. But their lack of power can make it hard to challenge authority.

“It’s a lot tougher,” Ramogi Huma, the head of the National Collegiate Players Association and a former UCLA football player, told The Daily Caller. “[Coaches] control everything about you and your situation — your scholarship and your playing time. You do everything to protect the program. You do everything to strengthen the program.”

Because of that Huma is advocating for a way for players to anonymously report everything from sexual abuse to not getting enough water at practice.

Protecting students who report sexual abuse is one area where new laws could have an impact.

“Currently, only 18 states require all adults to report suspected child abuse, and Pennsylvania is not one of them,” wrote Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, when he asked his colleagues in Congress to re-examine federal laws that govern reporting sexual assaults.

“I would hope that any revisions in the laws would include adequate protection for whistleblowers,” Michael Malec, a Boston College sociology professor who specializes in sports, told TheDC. “It would seem to me if we don’t provide that kind of protection, then it becomes very, very difficult to expect that people will do the right thing.”

As for the current players at Penn State and Syracuse who were indirectly affected by the allegations that surfaced this month, Congress and the NCAA are quiet — but Huma is not. He believes student athletes should have more options.

“Players from these schools should have an option to transfer if they want to without being punished,” Huma said. “The NCAA should make an exception and allow players to go wherever they want to go without losing a year of eligibility.”

The NCAA did not immediately reply to a request for comment about that possibility.

But while Penn State and Syracuse have brought sexual abuse to the public’s attention, college athletics are not the only arena where large institutions have a potentially counterproductive amount of power and leverage.

“It’s not just schools,” Eckstein said. “It’s all kinds of social institutions. When they have a certain amount of power and a certain amount of influence, they are able to make their own rules and own laws. They don’t necessarily have to answer to the outside world.”

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